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The simple (and cheap) holiday tradition that’s made me a happier person and better friend

wine bottle and glass in front of fireplace
Flickr/Henner Zeller/CC 2.0
Cozy up with some thank you notes this season.
By Khe Hy
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The holiday season is my favorite time of the year—a time to overdose on tryptophan and eggnog while letting holiday parties trump healthy habits. And it’s also the time when I get to embrace a simple practice that has brought me joy and strengthened many friendships over the years: the handwritten thank you card.

Each winter, I take inventory of everyone who has meaningfully impacted my life in the previous year—personal, professional, academic, you name it. If there’s any doubt, I err on the side of adding them to the list. And you don’t necessarily need to think of the calendar year in isolation—mentors will obviously make it on a recurring basis. My list this year has about 20 people on it.

Next, I head over to my favorite stationary store (or Amazon) and buy some holiday cards. Try to pick ones that suit your personality. One year I used playful Gangnam-style cards. Another year, I picked Pantone Cards that matched the recipients’ affiliations, such as their favorite sports team or their company’s logo.

Then, one at a time, write a note genuinely expressing gratitude, citing specific examples of the ways each person has made a difference in your life that year. For example, I plan on thanking Lauren Brown for introducing me to the Quartz entrepreneur-in-residence role, and Lynn Tabarra from TEDxCoventGardenWomen for so being so persistent in recruiting me to give my TEDx talk

Some of you may be thinking, “Why can’t I just send an e-mail or a Paperless post?” Digital options are cheaper and more convenient than buying cards and stamps and tracking down everyone’s mailing addresses—and nobody will know if your handwriting is terrible.

But handwritten cards are worth it. First, if you’re truly grateful for the people in your life, than the effort (and accompanying friction) that comes with writing notes is part and parcel of the gesture. The people who receive your cards will recognize this. Soraya Darabi, co-founder of the app Foodspotting and fashion brand Zady, says she saves all the cards she receives; her fridge is covered with thoughtful notes.” A “personal, well-intentioned note” is always preferable to an actual gift, she says, and inspires her to “want to continue to advocate for them in years to come.”

Should you need further motivation, consider entrepreneur Ryan Allis’ infamous, 1,284-slide guide on how to live life. Allis observes that busy people get 5,000 emails and 1,000 texts a month. A digital thank you is much more likely to get lost in the shuffle. An even better explanation of the merits of thank-you notes are these two tweets by Stripe CEO and co-founder Patrick Collison:

The “unidirectional and asynchronous nature” of the thank-you note immediately relieves the receiver of any cognitive burden or pressure to respond. The last thing you want when expressing gratitude is for the recipient to feel stressed about writing back.

And as the icing on the cake, you’ll feel better with each note you write. As Sebastian Junger writes in Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, doing something for another person, also known as prosocial behavior, rewards the giver with “an increase in dopamine and other pleasurable hormones (oxytocin) in their blood.”

Most importantly, you’ll find yourself having fun with this ritual, reflecting back on the relationships that have developed over the year and all the good things that have happened to you. Best of all, this holiday tradition can be spread out over time—as a break from work, with a glass of wine in hand on a quiet Sunday evening, or while catching up on episodes of Chef’s Table.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

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